News | Analysis of Capitalism - Socio-ecological Transformation - Changing Lanes Leaving Car Culture Behind

It’s time to finally change directions


As this text has been taking shape, one car corporation after the other has been publishing their annual financial statements. In 2019, Volkswagen posted a new record number of deliveries and expanded its market share in all trading regions. Despite the corporation’s diesel scandal, their core brand made a clear profit. BMW and Daimler also achieved record sales last year. The crisis forecast for the automotive industry may have fuelled fears, but did not prevent the major German car corporations from having a banner year in 2019. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the automotive industry is actively blocking efforts to transition human mobility away from the resource-intensive and emissions-heavy car towards more climate-friendly and equitable alternatives. In doing, so they are not only consolidating Germany’s imperialist means of transportation but also extending it beyond our borders too via a blatant focus on production for export. The major political parties have long gone along with the automotive industry’s inaction with respect to the necessary transformation in mobility that must occur. The renewed steps currently being taken by Die Linke to facilitate a deeper discussion of the socio-ecological transition to new forms of mobility are both very welcome and long overdue. It is crucial that they make clear that any means of mobility reliant on fossil fuels and structured around passenger cars is destined for the scrap heap. But the question remains—can a mobility transition work alongside the proposed left-wing Green New Deal (GND)?

Carla Noever Castelos is an active member of the I.L.A. Collective, which is dedicated to bolstering solidarity-centred alternatives to imperialist ways of living. She is also part of the “The Good Life for Everyone” team, a project run by the youth wing of Friends of the Earth Germany. This article first appeared in LuXemburg and was translated by Gráinne Toomey and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

In principle, the measures presented in the deal represent a markedly positive shift in the right direction. Targets for reducing car traffic are ambitious, as necessitated by the urgency of the climate crisis. Combining pull measures that focus on consumer action and push measures that target production is a sensible strategy. Thankfully, this strategy avoids the introduction of push measures typically applied to individuals such as higher charges for parking and petrol, a favourite proposal of the middle classes—and rightly so, given that such measures always disproportionately affect the less well-off.

In order to wean more people off their dependence on the car, it is crucial to actively support climate-friendly transport alternatives and make them more attractive in terms of convenience and affordability. To be sure, creating transport infrastructure for public and collective mobility that can hold its own against motorized individual transport in terms of convenience, everyday use, and flexibility is one of the central challenges the mobility transition will have to overcome, not least in terms of time cost. In the meantime, a wide range of short-term measures can be taken to make alternatives affordable for everyone. Proposals for supporting public transport and rail, transport sharing options, as well as critical infrastructure for short distances represent the most practical first steps to be taken in this direction. At the same time, these proposals are nothing new, and merely what environmental groups have been advocating for years. Of key importance now is to formulate tangible measures tied to specific timeframes so that change will actually begin to occur.

Toppling the Car From Its Throne

On the other hand, it is unlikely that decent alternatives to car-based transport will be able to reduce their number by half in the next ten years, as proposed in the left-wing GND. For many car drivers, a free bus could stop right outside their door and they (or likely “he”) would still decide to use their own vehicle. The car is more than just a mode of transport. When the left-wing GND suggests that vehicle production be oriented to meet societal needs, the positive intent is there, but will ultimately lead us down the wrong path, because these needs are in fact created by the automotive corporations themselves. Every year they bring any number of new models onto the market with cars increasingly transformed into playgrounds fully equipped with the latest in high-tech electronics. For many car owners, their vehicles are symbols of status and identification, occupying the position of pet or even a home—in short, they are much more than just a means of getting from A to B. A dismantling of the car’s cultural position as primary vehicle is a fundamental prerequisite to a democratically managed mobility transition. Die Linke has rightly proposed a 50% cut in vehicle production by 2030. But how can we change the mindset that continually reproduces the need for a new, faster, more modern form of auto-mobility? By banning advertising, or by placing strict, functional limits on the number of new car models and the amount of new features they may be equipped with? How can we promote alternative narratives of climate-friendly and collective mobility and shorter travel distances? Relatable local initiatives are necessary to highlight the effects of street noise, fumes, traffic accidents, and the isolation that occurs when everyone drives around in their own car—and to show that it could all be different, and better too. Politicians need to step in to ensure that these kinds of initiatives are set in motion, supported, and then safeguarded.

In terms of production, the left-wing GND outlines proposals for industrial policy that contain wide-ranging measures aimed at strengthening environmental management practices. The proposal to introduce strict thresholds for direct and indirect emissions as well as for the consumption of energy and raw materials in both production and end car use have the potential to make a meaningful impact. As a result of these measures, the production of huge gas-guzzling cars would be more or less banned. No-one has the intrinsic right to drive an SUV—and that means no one! Should Germany heed the call to ban the production or export of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030, it would become part of a global trend. Given the extent of the climate crisis, this kind of urgent state intervention is more than imperative. It goes without saying that flooding the streets with electric cars to the same extent that combustion engine cars currently do is hardly a viable solution, given their energy and raw material requirements. And at any rate, switching to a different propulsion system makes no difference to the use of space or the number of traffic accidents.

Degrowth and Democratization in the Automotive Sector

The primary objective, therefore, is not to develop a different motor system, but to cut down on traffic and shift from individual forms of mobility to more collective ones. This requires a greater level of clarity than that provided by the left-wing GND. Halving the number of vehicles on the road, eliminating SUVs (seen as the German automotive industry’s biggest hope) and bringing out fewer new automobile models will all lead to a slump in the car sector. And that’s a good thing. The decoupling of economic growth from resource and energy use simply cannot come quickly enough. While much has been made of carbon neutrality, it is ultimately a fairy tale. It can only be achieved via the use of questionable high-risk technology or by offsetting our emissions wherein our reductions are simply exported to other parts of the world. A mobility transition that incorporates societal needs, is as climate friendly as possible, and results in an absolute reduction in emissions and in resource and energy use is only possible within a degrowth scenario; that is, a future that bids farewell to the pursuit of infinite economic growth. This must form a central component of any left-wing response to the socio-ecological challenges brought about by car manufacturers’ quest for profit. Whether “Green New Deal”, which—in Europe at least—was shaped by proponents of ecological modernization and green growth, is the right term for a democratically led mobility transition that foregrounds social and environmental concerns may require reconsideration.

The real challenge will be to implement a carefully-managed shrinking of the automobile sector in such a way that it does not negatively impact workers. This must avoid descending into a similarly fatal conflict between jobs and the environment conflict, currently seen rearing its ugly head in the long-delayed transition away from the use of coal in the energy sector. The “head in the sand, business as usual” attitude displayed by car corporations implies that they will attempt to pass on the anticipated costs that will result from the belated introduction of transformation processes and the consequences of a crisis of overproduction to employees. The impending radical shifts in the auto industry must be utilized as a window of opportunity in which to push for proactive and progressive labour demands, for instance a radical reduction in working hours, an idea which features in the left-wing GND. The transformation of the car industry also represents an important moment in which to promote the democratization of economic processes. These shifts can be a way to kickstart democratic conversion processes, where employees are given a greater say in deciding the kinds of production and work that they are willing to undertake. Many workers in car manufacturing companies and suppliers are well-versed in the just-in-time method of manufacturing individual components for highly complex products. Instead of producing SUVs, these workers could, for example, ultimately contribute to the development and production of climate-friendly ferries for transporting people safely across the Mediterranean while also freeing the water of plastic waste. Such democratic conversion processes require clear labour policy frameworks. In addition to the proposed grants for upskilling, employees could, for example, continue to receive their regular income when they take part in operational conversion processes, as a means of encouraging their participation. To this end, public investment is necessary, which, as the left-wing GND suggests, should be linked to democratic forms of ownership that redistribute both profits and decision-making powers and prioritize the common good over the pursuit of infinite growth.

More to the Mobility Transition Than Putting the Brakes on Cars

In conclusion, it is important to note that the conversion of the automotive industry presents an enormous challenge. But the mobility transition is not just about cars. After all, freight transport is responsible for an enormous percentage of transport sector emissions alongside private transport, and despite enhanced technology, the increase in the circulation of goods has meant that these emissions have been on the rise. 75% of freight transport is undertaken by lorries on roads. The mobility transition must therefore be positioned within a broader context of transformation where we critically examine the vast and energy-intensive yet incredibly cheap freight sector and the long distances entailed by an economy that spans the entire globe. A perspective that looks beyond the pursuit of infinite economic growth is also unavoidable if we are to adequately confront the climate crisis.

In addition to public transport and rail, support for cyclists and pedestrians must also play a central role in the mobility transition, for instance by expanding safe and attractive cycling infrastructure and by focusing on the needs of pedestrians when developing urban areas, in a manner that is comprehensive and socially inclusive so that an enhanced quality of life in car-free zones does not lead to new forms of displacement. Another key aspect of a socially and environmentally responsible mobility transition must also be a comprehensive and fair reduction in air traffic. Aviation is growing rapidly and produces high levels of emissions, but on a global level it is also a very unequal form of mobility. So far, neither of these aspects have been explored in sufficient depth by left-wing GND proposals.

How can we bring about this vision of the mobility transition? The mobilization of parliamentary powers will be crucial in pushing this goal on the institutional level, both locally and nationally, and it is essential that these powers are able to clearly explain the radical solutions required with respect to the political reality and safeguard the alternatives that emerge. Given the current political majority and balance of power, however, the initial focus will need to be on persuasive lobbying efforts and a direct reduction in fossil fuel-dependent modes of transport. This will demand a high level of activist activity in both trade unions as well as in the climate justice movement––and hopefully in a context where both of these groups are working together in tandem.